This exhibit of
Indian arts of the Amazon represents only a fraction of the riches possessed
by the many diverse Native peoples living in Brazil. The exhibit was designed
to emphasize the beauty of the objects displayed, even though the pieces
were not made as "art for art's sake." Some are everyday utensils,
some are ritual objects; some were produced for use within native communities,
some for external markets. They include basketry, jewelry, feathered headdresses,
and other body adornments generally made of perishable organic materials.
Although this is not an anthropological or historical exhibit, we cannot
ignore the various peoples who produced these objects. The collection
of ethnographic arts from which they are drawn was begun in the late 1960s,
when the brilliantly colored feather objects displayed here first claimed
my attention. I admired them esthetically, became interested in the peoples
who produced them, and began buying other Brazilian Indian pieces as I
pursued my professional interests: research and publication on nineteenth-century
Brazilian history. During that time, Brazilian intellectuals were beginning
to pay increasing attention to the patrimony of their nation's Native
peoples, and FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Indio, or National
Indian Foundation, from which most of the pieces in this collection were
acquired) was established as a Brazilian government agency intended to
protect indigenous peoples as well as promote Indian arts. The growth
of the collection, therefore, accompanied changing attitudes and actions
in Brazil, ranging from the semi-romantic view of a forever-lost Indian
past and Indians as a disappearing minority to a recognition of the numerical
growth of certain indigenous groups who had "come back" with
their own voice. Hence the collection is also testimony to an important
phase in Brazilian history.
While it is not the purpose of this essay to enter into the current debate
about the ways in which Amerindian culture and societies should be conceived
and presented, I should note some of the issues involved. The first of
these is terminology. The term "Indian" continues to be used
as a generic modern term for Native South Americans, although some find
its predominant function is to impute racial inferiority. "Native
American," "Amerindian," "indigenous," and "aboriginal"
are broad terms that are generally intended non-prejudicially. The many
uses of the word "tribe" also produce confusion. In both old
and some recent writing about lowland peoples of South America, the Spanish
"tribú" and the Portuguese "tribu" are widely
used as terms for any group of people who seem to possess a culture and
a language and who live within a particular territory. But neither the
Iberian empires nor their successor states officially recognized such
groups as corporations with separate territorial treaty rights, such as
occurred in North America. Hence the vernacular North American usages
of "tribe" are not useful here; the modern North American term
"nation," like the Brazilian term "nação,"
is preferable. The labeling of particular peoples also involves other
problems. Several names are often attached to each seemingly discrete
"tribe" and to its subgroups, including names which may be distasteful
to the recipients, thus making the standardization of names, let alone
their spellings, a recognizable but virtually insoluble problem.
Over 300,000 Indians from more than 200 ethnic groups currently live within
the political boundaries of Brazil, comprising just .2% of the nation's
total population of approximately 170 million. This is a smaller percentage
of indigenes than is found in other countries in the Western Hemisphere.
Although concentrated in the Amazon region, Brazil's indigenes are spread
across the country's vast geography. Their societies have not been frozen
in time, but rather exhibit continuous change, and the people's enduring
activism and individualism go beyond colonization. Today we have not just
histories of Indians, but Indian histories, as some Indian groups have
gradually overcome their longstanding marginalization from Portuguese
literacy. Certainly the supposition that modern indigenous South Americans
embody archetypes of changeless culture--an idea still found in popular
and semi-scholarly literature--should no longer be accepted. Brazil's
indigenes cannot be considered people outside of time, or people without
Although the issues of how long humans have lived in South America, and
how soon they domesticated its plants and animals, continue to be hotly
debated, it is evident that the vast tropical lowlands lying east of the
Andes have been home to diverse peoples for thousands of years. Those
who settled along the area's major waterways developed some of the earliest
pottery and root crop cultivation in the New World. Recent archaeological
discoveries indicate that complex South American highland society draws
its origins from lowland antiquity. Although scholars had once considered
the greater Amazon region as lacking locally evolved, politically complex
societies, we now know that the history of political complexity in this
area goes back at least to the beginning of the first millennium A.D.
In the sixteenth century in all areas of what is now Brazil, early European
explorers were astonished at the density and diversity of Native populations.
Peoples of the densely settled Amazon flood plain, with its rich soil
and abundant fish, were sedentary horticulturalists living in complex
societies with permanent, centralized political hierarchies headed by
hereditary chiefs. Sixteenth-century European chroniclers reported on
these societies' stratified political and economic organization, complex
territorial arrangements, intensive cultivation, some animal domestication,
and surplus economies with large networks of commercial and trade relations.
In contrast, much of eastern Brazil--from the forests of what is now Mato
Grosso State to the arid highlands and savannas that separate the southern
Amazon basin from the Atlantic coast--was inhabited by nomadic hunters
and foragers. These peoples were organized in small, highly mobile bands
and ranged through huge areas of the interior to hunt, forage, trade,
and make war on enemy groups. To the south were swidden agriculturalists
who cultivated maize and who periodically moved their multi-family villages
throughout a large region of tropical and subtropical coastal forests
along the major rivers of the Paraná-Paraguay River system.
Throughout the Americas,
contact with Europeans and the cataclysm of conquest had a tremendous
biological and demographic impact on Native peoples. On the coast of Brazil,
where the Portuguese encountered cultural diversity and political fragmentation,
the patterns of mutual trade and alliance shifted to warfare, enslavement,
and conversion, eventually leading to demographic collapse and cultural
disruption of the Native population. In the Amazon basin, complex flood
plain societies collapsed very quickly, experiencing catastrophic depopulation
as a result of increasing inter-tribal warfare, slavery, and the introduction
of European epidemic diseases. In contrast to these riverine societies,
however, the more mobile hunting and foraging peoples presented the most
consistent and longstanding obstacles to colonial expansion, although
they remained vulnerable to continued assaults by Europeans. Many surviving
peoples were driven into the least accessible parts of the continent.
After some three hundred
years of contact, demographic decline, and ethnic transformation, by the
early twentieth century the once populous and culturally rich Native populations
of Brazil were reduced to pockets of isolated communities. Even though
nineteenth-century contacts with outsiders had not been as intense as
in other countries in the hemisphere, Indians were marginal to Brazilian
life. Although they did form part of the national self-image, Natives
were regarded as exotic, and were either subject to sentimentalizing by
some intellectuals or treated harshly by frontiersmen. But Brazil's Indians
became a national issue when their cause was championed by a young army
officer, Cândido Rondon, himself of indigenous heritage, who became
head of Brazil's Service for the Protection of Indians (SPI), created
in 1911. Although this poorly funded agency lacked the necessary resources
and political influence, it succeeded in protecting some indigenous lives
and lands. Exposure of SPI's shortcomings in the 1960s, during a military
regime that encouraged development at all costs, led to its replacement
in 1967 by FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation, which attempted to exercise
tutelary control over the Indians and to facilitate their absorption into
mainstream Brazilian culture. The lifestyles of some groups were certainly
transformed, but the indigenes' struggle to survive, as well as to preserve
and re-create their identities, continued.
By the early 1970s, scholars and activists were calling attention to the
injustices suffered by indigenous peoples. Movements for ethnic affirmation
and self-assertion arose, as different groups expressed their desire for
land rights and local autonomy as a way to safeguard their own cultures.
Charismatic Indian leaders appeared on the national political scene. As
the process of negotiation and struggle continued, some indigenous groups
sought to adapt to dominant society while honoring ancestral customs,
although others pursued different paths, even seeking access to Brazilian
accoutrements of power.
populations are on the increase in Brazil, although the question of "who
is an Indian" remains controversial. Census figures are unreliable,
because the Native peoples of lowland South America are at a great distance
from the lives and concerns of government officials. Census figures may
also be minimized, to purportedly show that people once considered Indians
have now passed into the mainstream. In addition, people who might have
once accepted their designation as Indians may now reject it; conversely,
those who were once reluctant to be termed Indians may now desire the
designation, as a result of the growing indigenous movements. In fact,
if the number of individuals who self-identify as Indians in Brazil--not
just those who live in federally recognized indigenous territories or
are officially viewed as Indians--were included in population counts,
the total Indian population would be much greater than national census
The surviving Indian peoples in Brazil-those members of groups that have
not perished but are growing in number- currently range from the very
acculturated Portuguese-speaking Indians of Brazil's Northeast, who are
active in the regional socio-economic system, to autonomous Indian groups
living apart from the dominant cultural and economic system. The objects
in this exhibit, all produced during the second half of the twentieth
century, come from such different groups as the Guarajara, who record
almost 400 years of acquaintance with Luso-Brazilian civilization; the
Urubu-Kaapor, first contacted in 1928; the Kayapó, whose lands
rich with timber and alluvial gold were opened to mining in the 1980s
and whose rivers are now contaminated with mercury from that mining (they
have linked their cause with international ecological concerns); the Waiwai,
who converted to a strict form of Christianity; and the Pataxó,
who produce wooden objects such as spoons for sale across Brazil. While
we may admire and enjoy the beautiful objects in the exhibit, we must
not forget their makers--the people and their struggles for existential,
as well as physical, survival.
E. HAHNER, Ph.D.
I wish to thank Dr. Laila Williamson of the American Museum of Natural
History for information concerning some of the objects in this exhibition;
and Dr. Mary C. Karasch of Oakland University and Dr. Roberta Marx Delson
of the American Museum of Natural History for suggestions concerning this
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